Paul Auster’s Best Books: A Guide

Paul Auster’s Best Books: A Guide

Paul Auster, who died on April 30 at the age of 77, was an atmospheric author whose scalpel-sharp prose examined the fluidity of identity and the absurdity of the writer’s life. An occasional memoirist, essayist, translator, poet and screenwriter, Auster was best known for his metafiction — books that were characterized by their elusive narrators, chance encounters and labyrinthine narratives.

Consuming Auster’s genre-defying books is not unlike the experience of reading he describes in “The Brooklyn Follies”: “When a person is lucky enough to live inside a story, to live inside an imaginary world, the pains of this world disappear,” he wrote. “For as long as the story goes on, reality no longer exists.” Thankfully, Auster left us with many worlds and stories and realities to lose ourselves in.

These are the books that best represent his work.

Auster’s debut memoir, “The Invention of Solitude,” put him on the map as an exciting new voice in the literary world. Bold and inventive, it chronicles his life as the son of an absent father and the father of a young son. The book’s themes — grief, loss, identity, loneliness, coincidence — all became central in his later work, both fiction and nonfiction.

This book is technically a triptych of novels (“City of Glass,” “Ghosts” and “The Locked Room”), each of which borrows elements from detective fiction by focusing on a man investigating a subject to the point of oblivion. But at its core, “The New York Trilogy” — likely his most popular work among academics, undergraduates and aspiring writers — is a meditation on the things that make a person who they are. It cemented Auster as a stylish writer, one whose distinctive narrators searched for meaning and identity, circuitously and in perpetuity, against the constraints of art and language.

This novel has all the ingredients that readers came to expect from Auster’s work: the isolated male narrator, the search for an absent father and the disappointment of missed chances. It follows an orphan, Marco Stanley Fogg, on a picaresque journey west from New York as he tries to learn more about his family’s past. At times the journey is almost too farcical to be “unbelievable,” Joyce Reiser Kornblatt wrote in her New York Times review, but the book is grounded by a cast of characters both “heartfelt and complex.”

“Leviathan” — which borrows its name from Thomas Hobbes’s treatise about the role of government in society — is about a man trying to understand why a friend has blown himself up with a bomb. The Austerian themes are on full display, as our reviewer wrote, in “a work in which fictional lives are circumscribed by recorded events, and real people shape the destinies of conjured ones.”

Questions of random coincidence bedevil David Zimmer, the book’s narrator, who appeared briefly in “Moon Palace.” Alone and on a path of self-destruction after losing his family in a plane crash, he becomes obsessed with the work of Hector Mann, an actor who vanished decades before and is presumed dead. After writing a book about him, Zimmer receives a cryptic letter saying that Mann is very much alive. The letter threatens to unravel Zimmer’s entire world, which Auster renders in a muted, elegiac tone.

Set in an alluringly bleak New York, “The Brooklyn Follies” follows Nathan Glass, a cancer survivor looking for “a quiet place to die” until meeting someone who sends him spiraling into an existential crisis. Though the subject is solemn, this is Auster at his most playful.

“4 3 2 1” is an epic bildungsroman that presents the life of a boy named Archie Ferguson in four versions simultaneously. At 866 pages, this book might sound like a drag; but as Tom Perrotta wrote in his New York Times review: “It’s impossible not to be impressed — and even a little awed — by what Auster has accomplished. ‘4 3 2 1’ is a work of outsize ambition and remarkable craft, a monumental assemblage of competing and complementary fictions, a novel that contains multitudes.”

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